Time to find out what Elizabeth has been up to. What will Thranduil think about it? What will Legolas have to say? Let's find out!

As always, my thanks for the follows, favorites and awesome reviews.

Chapter Thirty-six

The lazy clop-clop of horse's hooves was muffled by the moist dirt and leaves on the forest floor, there having been quite a few days in a row of spring rain. Elizabeth was out for her morning ride with her two guards, Renion and Thandir, and nothing seemed out of the ordinary or in any way strange. But unknown to both guards, unfamiliar eyes tracked the progress of the queen with her escort from far enough away so as not to be immediately detected.

Glancing to the west, the Elvenqueen narrowed her eyes and brought her horse to a stop. After dismounting, she raised a hand to Renion and Thandir.

"No, don't get down. I'm only going to take a short walk, and I wish you both to remain here."

"But...my queen," Renion began to protest, with a concerned look at Thandir.

"I will not go far." She gave them both a reassuring smile and patted the hilt of her sword strapped to her waist. "And you know I can look after myself for at least a few minutes. I will be briefly out of your sight, but not out of hearing range."

A rustling and the sound of footsteps from just beyond a nearby young tree had both guards instantly springing into action, leaping from their horses and standing in front of Elizabeth with blades drawn. When two figures appeared, one tall and one short, both clad in brown leather armor, Thandir stepped forward.

"Halt!" he said sharply in Common. "In the name of King Thranduil, on whose land you trespass, come no closer to our queen or we will cut you down."

Both leather-clad males raised their hands in a sign of surrender, and the taller one gave a contrite smile to the queen. "Forgive us for disobeying, dear Mother. We were too eager to be in your presence again for caution, but we removed our weapons as you commanded."

"Exoikonomíste me tous peismatás ándres pou den akoún!" Elizabeth muttered in exasperation, moving in front of Renion and Thandir and giving them a reassuring smile. (Greek: Save me from stubborn men who don't listen!)

"They are no threat," she said in Sindarin. "Lower your weapons, please, and be at ease. I summoned them both here to speak with me." Without waiting for a response, she faced the two gray-skinned strangers and held out both of her hands. They approached and fell to their knees, each taking a hand in both of their own and pressing their lips against the back of her hands in a reverent kiss.

"My Queen," the smaller one whispered in Westron, "I cannot fully express to you the great joy of beholding your glory once more. Please say we have your favor."

She smiled benevolently. "You know you have my favor, both of you. Stand, and tell me by what new names you would have me call you, as we last spoke of."

Slowly rising and keeping their gaze only on the queen, the taller one clasped his hands before him. "I am Shagrol no more, my lady, but have taken the name Viktûr, as you suggested."

Nodding, she turned to the smaller male, able to look him directly in the eye since his change, as he was no longer stooped over as he had been. "And you?" she prompted.

His golden eyes shining with eagerness, he bowed his head to answer. "I am Ashûr, Great Queen, similar to the word for first in the Black Speech, for I was privileged to be born before all others."

"Ashûr and Viktûr," she mused while pacing back and forth in front of them, taking note of all the changes in their appearances since she last saw them in person. "You sound like twins, which I suppose is fitting in the circumstances." She shook her head, crossing her arms. "It truly is remarkable, the differences, even I would not recognize you if I did not already know you both. Some might even say such a transformation impossible, yet by such reckoning, I too have been through impossible changes." Turning back toward her bewildered guards, she smiled at their confusion.

"Renion, can you tell me what race you think these two males standing here were born of?"

With furrowed brows, he shared an uncertain look with Thandir and shook his head. "I...am unsure, my lady. In some ways, they seem to share similarities with elfkind, with their hair, ears, and to some extent, their features, but I have never seen gray-skinned elves. The names they spoke before were orc names, but they are clearly not orc, as I sense no evil as I always do from such creatures."

Viktûr smiled at the guard. "We were both orc by birth, before the blood of Queen Elizabeth changed us and saved us. Our Lady has given us new life and purpose."

"What exactly is your purpose?" Thandir asked, clearly disturbed by the revelation that the ones before them were from among the ranks of their hated enemies. "And how can you be trusted? Such an evil nature is surely not so easily changed."

"All you say is true," Viktûr agreed. "We were wicked, born of evil and kept for no other purpose. But the magic of our Queen's blood is greater than all of Mordor, and every dark lord besides. I never knew love or compassion until Mother freed me from my bonds of hate. I never knew joy until she gifted us with it." He gestured toward his comrade, who nodded with a small smile at the guards.

"Our purpose now is to serve Queen Elizabeth in any way she directs us, and to rescue more of our former kind from the clutches of darkness, giving them the choice to become as we are. The enemies of the Queen are our enemies, and those she calls friend and ally we hope to do the same. It remains to be seen if your Lord King, and mate to our mother will accept us."

He drew a great breath, glancing up at the trees as the wind blew them, before meeting Thandir and Renion's eyes in turn. "There has been much hatred and enmity between elf and orc through the ages, but with us comes new possibilities for peace. It is my hope, and the hope of my brethren, that we will be accepted by your kind, so we may live in harmony, as neighbors."

The approval Viktûr could feel from Elizabeth and the touch of her hand against his cheek brought tears to his eyes. Resting his own large hand on top of hers, he met her gaze, his eyes full of his love. "I would die a thousand deaths for you, Great Queen, and count it an honor to do so."

Going to his knees again and resting his cheek against Elizabeth's hand, Ashûr closed his eyes. "And I. Thank you for agreeing to meet with us, at last, Mistress. I am well strengthened by your presence and touch, for all the days that lie ahead."

Two hours later, as Elizabeth and her guards journeyed back to the halls, she stopped and turned her horse to face them, giving them each a long look.

"I would ask you both to swear you will say nothing of my meeting today, with anyone. It was not my intention to burden you with the knowledge of this new endeavor I have undertaken, but as you now know, you will please keep silent, or you will risk injuring me. I will tell the king soon, as I plan to take him to see the settlement they have built in the far north-west corner of these woods." She sighed and looked away.

"But I cannot fully predict his reaction, or what steps he may take in his initial anger toward my concealment of these things. Will you both give me your honest opinion? Did you find Ashûr and Viktûr compelling and sincere?"

"I found nothing in their manner offensive, and their devotion to you certainly seemed genuine," Renion began hesitantly, looking at Thandir, who nodded.

"But," Thandir ventured, "we have no way of knowing if they really mean all they say, or if it is merely an act to draw us in."

"I know it is no act, as I have full access to the minds of all who are bound to me, as they are," Elizabeth shrugged. "They were made into what you saw by ingesting my blood, which I know you will both find abhorrent, but I did it with purpose as a means to escape when I was held captive in the dark tower. There were others besides them, as I thought to change enough of the orcs to form a guard, but they were slain during the fighting, all but the final two. I sent them away until I could decide what was to be done with them, never dreaming the kind of change would occur as has. Once I realized the possibilities, I bade them to make a settlement and convert more orcs, taking steadily away from the enemy's ranks while building my own army of devoted allies."

"An army?" Renion echoed in surprise. "How many more are there like the ones we saw, my lady?"

She smiled faintly. "Around five hundred, currently. If the King approves, that could easily climb into the thousands in another ten years."

A moment of silence passed while both guards considered the possible implications of such a force, for good or ill. "We will neither of us make mention of any of this, as we are sworn to obey you," Thandir said quietly. "I trust you know what you are doing, my lady, and will soon seek the king's opinion and wisdom as to this venture."

"Yes, let us hope he will share his wisdom on all this with an open mind." She turned her horse and they began riding toward the halls again.

Legolas peeked into the family sitting room, smiling at the sight of the twins laying on the floor together, drawing pictures of animals. His father was pacing the length of the room, reading a scroll with one hand, with one year old Alassë draped across his other forearm on her belly, looking more like an arm accessory than a toddling baby.

Coming forward, Legolas reached his hands out, silently relieving his father of the strawberry-blonde haired infant, and chuckling when she squealed in protest until Legolas turned her to the same position with her belly across his forearm, and her face out toward the room.

"I believe you've spoiled her to this position now, Adar. She scarcely lets me hold her any other way, unless it's over my shoulder when she's tired."

Thranduil raised a brow, lifting his gaze from his letter to his eldest child. "She came to enjoy being held that way as a newborn when she was difficult to soothe, and I believe now it is just familiar and she enjoys the view."

Legolas tossed her in the air and caught her, chuckling at her happy giggles. "Is that true, Alassë, you enjoy being able to see from so high up?"

"Up! Up more, Legolas! High!" Alassë demanded in her sweet toddler's voice.

He tossed her even higher before he spun her around to sit on top of his shoulders, where she rested her hands on his head and looked around from her even higher vantage point, briefly content.

"This one is rather fearless," Legolas said to the Elvenking, who nodded.

"Yes, she has a strong will, as we frequently see displayed when she resists her rest time, as she is currently doing."

"Where is Elizabeth this afternoon?" Legolas held Alassë's legs in place to stop her from kicking, wincing when she tugged on one of his braids.

Thranduil hid his amusement over the abuse Legolas was enduring from his youngest, going to sit in one of the plush chairs near the twins and tossing aside the correspondence he had finished reading. "She is at a committee meeting with the other ladies helping to organize this year's Children's Festival."

Untangling his sister's small fingers from one of his braids, Legolas lifted her down into his arms. "I thought Devrien was put in charge of all of that, more than two years past."

"She was." The king sighed. "But unfortunately, she has proven utterly inept for the task. Elizabeth would have given herself far less work if she had not tried to delegate to that one."

"I'm surprised you haven't already ordered someone else to take over," Legolas said with a smirk, well used to the decisive way his father normally dealt with similar circumstances.

Thranduil gave him a bemused look that showed only a portion of the frustration he had endured over the matter. "I would certainly like to, but Elizabeth does not appreciate when I intrude on matters under her authority and guidance, and she sees that young elleth as something of a daughter. Particularly since Devrien's parents recently departed to take the ship West."

Legolas laughed, bouncing Alassë in his arms. "Yes, I believe Elizabeth would mother everyone if she could. Not even I am exempt from her maternal care. She made me a strange garment last winter, though I have yet to wear it." At Thranduil's curious look, the prince shrugged. "She called it a turtleneck," he said, using the English.

The Elvenking smiled. "Yes, she has a number of odd garments from her former lands that she retains a notable fondness for, which I suppose is to be expected."

Catherine thrust up her completed drawing in a triumphant hand. "Finished! Daddy, do you like my horse?" She ran to her father and climbed up on his lap before presenting him with her art. He examined it with furrowed brows before he met his daughter's eager gaze.

"This is not a horse, my child. But it is a pleasant rendering of an elk, and very like my mount."

Sighing, Catherine laid her head against his chest. "It was meant to be a horse, but since Eddie was drawing one first, he said I had to draw something else, so I did."

Both Thranduil and Legolas turned to look at Edward, who was just gathering his own drawing, then walked toward his father with a sheepish smile. "Here's my horse."

Legolas walked closer to see, and repressed a smile. Thranduil raised an eyebrow after he accepted the drawing. "It seems your horse has had rather too much to eat, Edward, and not enough exercise to counterbalance the fact."

Edward looked down, scuffing his little boot against the floor. "I tried to make him a huge, strong warhorse. That's why he looks so big."

Catherine slid off her father's lap and took Edward's hand. "I like your horse, Eddie. You made him all white, and that's my favorite."

Edward swung her hand back and forth, clutched in his, and grinned. "I know! That's why I made him like that, so you would like it, Kitty." The twins giggled together, and then turned to look at their father with the same pleading look before Edward spoke again. "Ada, can we go play in the gardens outside for a little while? We'll be good and not climb the highest tree again."

Thranduil pursed his lips with a considering look and turned his regard toward Legolas when he spoke.

"I can take them all out to the gardens for a while, if you wish. I am meeting Langion in the great-hall this evening, but I have nothing else I need to attend to before that."

Nodding, the Elvenking stood. "Very well, you may take them out." He turned a stern look to all three of his small children. "But no pie or cake in the kitchens before evening meal, is that clear? Your mother will be upset if you come to the table again, unable to eat your dinner properly."

A chorus of protesting groans filled the room. Legolas smiled guilelessly when his father turned a knowing look toward him before he led his siblings away, Edward already begging to be allowed to ride on his back.

After they left, Thranduil stood, deciding to go to his office and work for while, taking the parchment he had been reading. After hesitating briefly, he reached down and picked up both drawings, his lips lifting in a slight smile as he looked them over again. Tucking them securely under his arm, he made his way out of their private rooms and toward his office.

The following day, Elizabeth drew a deep breath and knocked on the door to her husband's office. It was still quite early in the morning, but she felt the time had come to be open and honest, and let the chips fall where they may. Four years she had been working toward something so new and potentially volatile that she wasn't certain if there was hope for success, or if it would all turn out to be for nothing. Everything hinged on what Thranduil's reaction might be, and the decisions he made based on them. When she heard his call to enter, she squared her shoulders and opened the door.

Looking up with a welcoming smile, the Elvenking set aside the correspondence from Dale he had been reading, saddened to hear of the further decline in King Bard's health, but such was the way of mortals. Noting the nervous manner in which Elizabeth grasped a fistful of her skirt and her furrowed brows, he was instantly on alert.

"Something has upset you," he said in a soothing tone, probing their bond and frowning when he found her partially closed off to him, and she had learned to do in recent years. "Or," he paused, carefully reading her expression and not liking the signs of trepidation he saw. "There is something you fear to tell me." He narrowed his eyes when she shrugged and sat down heavily on a chair facing him.

"Both," she admitted. "I am upset because there is something I have kept from you, and I admit I do indeed fear your reaction when all is revealed. Will you perhaps promise me just one thing? Try to see past your anger to the careful consideration and purpose behind my actions."

Leaning forward, he laced his hands together on top of his desk as he digested that she had done something she was certain would make him angry and attempted to prepare himself. "This sounds rather serious. Is it to do with the children?"

Pushing back her long, dark hair, she shook her head. "No, it has nothing whatever to do with the children. Or, rather, nothing to do with our children together. From a certain point of view, I suppose you could say that it centers around my offspring, as unconventional as it may be." Looking away from him, she bit her lip. "And I'm babbling. God's bones, I have no ability to speak when I know I shall upset you."

Eyes softening, Thranduil pushed back his chair. "Elizabeth, come here."

She approached him and breathed out in relief when he pulled her onto his lap, kissed her tenderly and rested one of his large hands against her cheek. Looking into her eyes, his lips lifted in a slight smile. "You know you need say nothing aloud if you find it difficult. Open yourself to me fully, and you can show me all you wish to by letting me enter your mind."

Her own eyes softened with love at his never-ending attempts to protect her, even from her own discomfort. "I would like to show you something. It's what I've been working on when you find me meditating. After, I will attempt to explain myself in words. Is that agreeable to you?"

"Of course." He was eager to see just what manner of thing her magic could be commanded to do, for he had felt it coming off of her in powerful, vibrating waves when she was fully focused on it.

Opening the bond fully, Elizabeth fell willingly into the combination of their power when Thranduil stared into her eyes. Much stronger than she had been when he entered her mind in years past, she was able to keep a partial awareness of her body and physical surroundings, but mostly focused on showing him what she wished.

They stood side by side before a vast web, many crimson strands flowing outward, all pulsing with energy and life. Some were visibly stronger, the strand denser than others close by, but each and every string, even the narrowest silk connected to a beating heart at the center.

After studying the entire thing for several minutes, Thranduil placed the tip of his finger on one of the thickest strands, immediately able to look through the eyes of another being. He felt uncertainty, but excitement from the one who's mind he touched.

Mother? Your presence feels different to me than usual. Are you well?

Hissing, Thranduil withdrew his touch from the strand and immediately left Elizabeth's mind, staring angrily at her when she turned her head to meet his accusing gaze.

"Mother," he said in a flat tone, keeping tight reign on his fury to prevent himself from verbally lashing out at her as was his first inclination. "Every one of those strands is an orc connected to you, isn't it? When I told Haldir and Legolas to find and kill the last two bound to you, they could not find them. You helped them hide, and beyond that, you have added many more to their numbers."

Scrambling to keep from falling when he stood suddenly, Elizabeth took a step back and lifted her chin. "Those connected to me are not orcs, Thranduil. Not anymore. My blood kills orcs, and in their place, something new is born. A being no longer bound to evil, but with a free will and a desire to do good."

Thranduil gave a short, bitter laugh and a slight shake of his head. "You claim they have free will, yet they are tightly tied to you by blood-bond. You cannot have it both ways, Elizabeth. There is a reason why the use of magic fueled by blood is frowned on, for with such ties the stronger party always rules the weaker. Why did you conceal this from me instead of seeking my counsel? I seem to recall you swore never to conceal matters of importance from me, or is your word to me of no worth at all?"

Looking away from his accusing blue eyes, she pressed her lips together to stop their trembling, unable to prevent the hot tears that gathered at the magnitude of his upset and anger toward her. "I didn't mean to conceal it from you, not truly, only briefly delay telling you while I explored if it would be an asset to our realm; an asset to you. We both know war will come again from your foresight, and I sought to grow our forces while also freeing slaves from bondage. They are eager to serve, in thanks!" She shook her head and looked back at him.

"Yes, I know you would say I have made them my slaves, but I'm certain I can find a way to fully free them all when the time is right. But now they are like toddlers just learning to walk, and they are still greatly in need of my guidance."

He turned his face away from her and she hurried to finish her plea before his patience reached an end. "Please, just come with me to see the settlement they have made with your own eyes and judge what should be done. They are nothing like you would think, considering they were once orcs. And...I discovered, quite by accident...I...can kill them all with a thought," she finished quietly.

"A thought?"

Mollified, he met her gaze again and exhaled slowly, letting some of the tension leave his body at that reassurance. With the bond fully open between them, he swiftly searched her thoughts and found it to be true, and that she had discovered it was possible when she mistakenly killed one of the creatures during her experimentation to see how far her control extended.

"Very well," he agreed, stepping closer. "We will go together and see what you have done in secret from the eyes of your king." He lifted her chin in his hand and bent closer until she could see nothing but his face and the firm resolve in his bright blue eyes. "But if I deem these not-orcs a danger, in any way, you will slay them without hesitation. Do you understand? Down to the last."

"Yes," she whispered. "I'm sorry. You know I take no pleasure in vexing you, but all I have done is for you, our family and the kingdom. I hope you will not hold long to your anger toward me."

"Your king is very angry with you, Elizabeth. You knew I would be." His eyes held hers, even as a tear finally slipped over her lashes and cascaded down her cheek. "But your husband loves you no less. No matter the choices you make, whether wise or unwise, nothing can ever change my great love for you, as you know to be true. Now dry your tears and let us depart."

She felt weak with relief at the reminder of his unshakable love, and his willingness to give the whole thing a chance, despite his intense hatred for orcs. Elizabeth dashed the moisture from her face, smiling when he laced his fingers with hers and led her from the room so they could make preparations.

Legolas held his little sister in front of him while the company rode with the king and queen to the north-west woods, where he had just hours earlier been told by his father there was a previously unknown orc settlement. Though apparently, they did not need to don armor or prepare additional forces or weapons, which had initially struck him as odd. Further, his father made no objection to Catherine and Edward coming along when they begged, so he clearly anticipated no danger at all, or he would never have allowed it.

Guiding his horse nearer Elizabeth, Legolas pitched his voice low, speaking Quenya, as they always did when talking in front of his young siblings about adult matters. "These are the same orcs as were with you when Haldir and I found you?"

She raised a brow and gave him an aggravated look. "The same two people, yes. But they are no more orcs now than a butterfly remains a caterpillar."

He shrugged. "Same creature, just a different form."

"These individuals we speak of are entirely different to what they once were, Legolas. Do not let your own hate for orcs blind you to the truth. And even orcs are just tools for their dark overlords. If you would hate, then hate the ones who use them and make them into the cruel things that they are."

"I will attempt to keep an open mind." Legolas dropped his voice even quieter. "But do not be surprised if Adar condemns them to death. They have done much harm to our people and land."

"I only want to help our people, and make a difference for the better. What if this is a key to a new understanding and alliance? The chance to turn a former foe to friend?"

Looking down on Catherine's golden head, Legolas tightened his hold around her. "As long as we do not risk what is dear in some vain attempt."

"I see their minds!" Elizabeth said in exasperation. "Do you really think I would so carelessly risk what is equally precious to me? I wish you and your father would have more faith in me."

"We have faith in you, Elizabeth, you know we do," he murmured in a gentler tone. "It is them we do not trust, and with good reason."

"You will judge for yourselves soon. It is less than half an hour until we reach their dwelling place." Her eyes went slightly unfocused before she looked away. "They wait eagerly for our arrival. Passively, with no weapons or intent to fight, and they defer to my judgement fully, even to the point of death."

"Adar told me you can kill them all with a thought. Is this true?"

Elizabeth nodded and gave him a sad look. "It is. I only hope I am not required to do something so painful or cruel."

The elven forces from Greenwood came to a halt on a rise that overlooked the entire settlement that was quite large, and sprawled for a fair distance. Feren and the other guards moved their mounts off to one side in a line, quiet and watchful, but ready at a moment's notice to emerge from the trees and strike, if commanded by their king.

Thranduil led his great elk to a clear vantage point, narrowing his eyes as he surveyed the dwellings. Everything appeared clean and well-ordered; not something he had expected to see from orcs. Elizabeth walked her mount up beside his, also looking down on the rows of small homes, and a large expanse of tilled land, with many types of vegetables and grain flourishing, waving gently in the breeze.

When Edward shifted restlessly where he was held in front of his father, Thranduil settled him more comfortably against him.

"You may summon the one in charge of all this. I will make no final decision until I speak with him."

Elizabeth turned her head to look at her husband. "Do you not wish to ride down and examine the settlement more closely? They have taken great pains to live in a manner that..."

"No," he interrupted, meeting her gaze with a stern expression on his handsome face. "I will not waste time on such trivialities. I agreed to come and see, but I still believe elimination of this potential threat will be the safest, most expedient option."

She pressed her lips together and furrowed her brows, the first wisp of anger rising inside her. "Do you not intend to give them a chance to prove their worth to you at all? You condemn them already?"

Clenching his jaw, he raised a brow. "Summon them and I shall hear what they have to say. Beyond that, I will make no promise."

Dismounting, Elizabeth came to stand alongside Thranduil's elk. "I've already called them. They will be here shortly, and it is two that run this settlement, working in harmony together." She gave Thranduil a disappointed look and reached for her son. "Come, Edward, you may play with your sister while Mummy and Daddy are busy."

Four year old Edward went eagerly into her arms and patted her cheek, his little face creased with concern. "Don't be sad, Mummy."

Elizabeth forced a smile and did her best to will away her upset, knowing just how sensitive Edward was to her emotions or pain. "I won't be sad, my darling. You mustn't worry."

After leaving Catherine and Edward playing quietly together nearby, under the watchful eyes of Renion and Thandir, Elizabeth walked back to stand and wait near Thranduil and Legolas. They both wore the same cold, implacable expressions, and she repressed another sigh over just how stubborn they could both be in certain circumstances.

When two dark-haired males became visible, approaching from below, Elizabeth felt the rising tension all around her and walked forward to meet them, intent of diffusing the situation as much as possible. Once they reached the edge of the small clearing, they both glanced around warily before they went to their knees and each took a hand she extended to them and kissed them reverently.

Viktûr looked up to meet her eyes and smiled sadly. "My Queen, this day is blessed, if for no other reason than your coming. I hope you may find our efforts done in your name, to be worthy."

"Thank you, Viktûr, and you as well Ashûr. I know you've all worked very hard, and I'm proud of what you've managed to accomplish."

Thranduil, who had been listening to the exchange, and carefully examining their unusual physical appearances, walked nearer, then stopped and crossed his arms, speaking for the first time.

"You are both orcs?"

Legolas walked around behind the males and stood with his arms loosely at his sides, but fully alert, ready to reach for his knives at the slightest provocation. The smaller male looked up to meet the Elvenking's eyes, while Viktûr answered.

"We are orc no longer, Great King. The compassion and love of our Glorious Queen has changed us fully. Our outward forms are only a small sign of the many changes wrought within. Though we were instruments of evil, we no longer have truck with darkness, and all of Mordor could not turn us against our Queen, not even The One. She is dearer to us than our lives, and we serve her will alone."

The Elvenking pursed his lips. "A pretty speech, but any deceiver can tell lies and make them sound sweet. Remain where you are, both of you." Thranduil turned and walked back toward the mounted guards, calling over his shoulder. "Legolas, Elizabeth, tolo hí. Ídhron peded. (S. Come here. I wish to speak.)

When the three stood together, Thranduil kept his back to the two males in question, first turning to Legolas. "You see them and you stood near them, what is your impression?"

"I am not certain what they are, but I think we dare not trust to anything that was once orc. You know their cruelties, their depravities, and the complete disregard they have for the lives of any others, including their own kind."

While Legolas continued to argue against entering into any understanding with the former orcs, Thranduil's attention remained fully focused on him. Elizabeth looked between them and gave a subtle nod to Renion and Thandir, who allowed their charges to walk away from them. At the sight of the four happy faces in front of her, she smiled radiantly, drawing the Elvenking's gaze first, and finally Legolas as he fell silent. They both turned to see what had put such a pleased expression on her face.

Both Catherine and Edward had approached the gray-skinned males, who were smiling tenderly, Ashûr with tears in his eyes when the small princess reached out and took his hand in hers. Catherine brushed a curious hand down the length of his dark, silky hair and leaned fully against him. Edward settled on Viktûr's knee and gave the large male's cheek a friendly pat.

Legolas tensed, immediately ready to go retrieve his siblings, but Elizabeth put a hand on his arm to stop him. "Wait and watch. They will not hurt them, they would die before they would allow harm to come to any child of mine."

Thranduil silently watched them interact for another minute while Catherine chattered happily away, and Edward and the two males listened to her in apparent contentment. With furrowed brows, the Elvenking finally opened his mouth.

"Catherine, Edward, come to me at once."

With obvious reluctance, the twins moved away from their newfound friends. Edward reached his arms up to his mother, and she picked him up, patting his back soothingly while Legolas pulled Catherine into his arms, holding her protectively against his chest. The young princess turned her gaze to her mother, her little mouth turned down in a worried frown.

"Mummy, they're sad and afraid, but they want to be good, please don't hurt them. Please."

Edward lifted his head and nodded, equally solemn. "Ashûr and Viktûr are our friends. They're nice, and they love us."

Elizabeth turned to her husband, her brows lifted expectantly. "Well, what is your will, Sire? You have counsel from the very mouths of babes, who would never be drawn to a creature of evil. Shall you receive it?"

Thranduil frowned, looking back at the males watching them with hope in their gold eyes. Turning away, he looked down into his wife's gray-green gaze seeing the same hope there. He drew a long breath, pushing away his emotions in favor of only rational thought.

I suppose after seeing them, I will agree to...a trial period, he told her in mind-speak. Six months, but nothing more than that. They must earn any future concessions, including being allowed to exist as well as remain on our lands. This is a temporary reprieve, not a final decision.

Elizabeth smiled and patted Edward's back, knowing just how difficult it was for Thranduil to give even that much of a concession, considering the ingrained hatred he and all elves had for orcs. In that moment, her respect for him as a wise, careful ruler grew even larger than before.

Thank you, that's all I was asking for, love. Just a chance for them. Thank you.

Looking like he had just been forced to swallow something foul, Thranduil walked toward his elk. "Come, Elizabeth, let us go down and inspect this settlement of not-orcs." He turned toward her with a quirked brow. "I think we must come up with something more appropriate to call your worshipers."

Following behind him, she handed Edward up after he was mounted, switching to English. "They have their own name amongst themselves, but I thought we might call them Liberari, which is the Latin word for freed."

"Liberari," he murmured. "I suppose it will do."

Legolas walked toward his horse still holding Catherine. Shifting her to one arm, he leapt up, watching Elizabeth and his father begin to walk their mounts down the path. His friend, Langion, drew up beside him, concerned at the dark look the Prince wore.

"I certainly hope we do not regret this," Legolas muttered for his friend's ears alone. Langion nodded, setting his mount to follow the prince, and silently hoping his king had made a wise choice.